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Reviews > Cook Gear > Stoves > Vargo Titanium Decagon Stove > Test Report by Derek Hansen
Vargo Decagon Titanium Stove
Test Series by Derek Hansen
Manufacturer: Vargo Outdoors, LLC
Listed Fuel Capacity: None listed
01 Mar 2008
The Vargo “Decagon” Titanium Stove (hereafter “Vargo” or “stove”) is a low-maintenance, single-component stove that burns denatured alcohol. The stove is round in shape, contains no moving parts, and is constructed out of molded or pressed titanium parts that have been welded or otherwise sealed together. The manufacturer states that the “stove was designed to withstand the abuse of being used everyday while hiking for many months without fear of breaking.”
The stove features a “stability plate” which is about twice the diameter of the main stove component that the manufacturer claims “prevents tipping.” The term “decagon” may come from the fact that there are ten holes cut out of the round stability plate.
About one inch up from the base on the side of the stove are the flame jet holes. These 24 small holes are evenly spaced near the rim of the main stove compartment and are 1/16 in (1.59 mm) in diameter.
Protruding from the top of the stove are three “bumps,” which are used to raise the pot slightly above the stove flame jet holes (about 0.25 in, 6.35 mm).
The bottom of the stove is concave in shape, creating a “bowl” shape where the denatured alcohol is stored. Printed on the bottom of the stove is the “Vargo Titanium” label.
Packaging: The stove arrived strapped to a plain cardboard placard listing the basic features, instructions and warnings. The package is printed in black ink on recyclable paper. The stove is dark charcoal in colour.
Listed Features: The printed packaging claims the following:
Instructions: The packaging directs to “carefully pour denatured alcohol into the center hole being sure not to spill alcohol.” There is no mention on any specific measurement; that is left to the consumer. After pouring the alcohol, “ignite the fuel by placing a match at the hole opening.” The alcohol must heat up and vaporize before it can ignite flames on the outside jet holes. Once primed, “place pot on the top of the stove covering the large center hole.”
After using the stove, and presumably before the stove has burned itself out, extinguish the flames by blowing on the stove. Unused fuel can be reclaimed “by tilting the stove vertically over fuel container.”
Warnings: Vargo warns to use only denatured alcohol. Other fuels, such as white gas, kerosene, etc., will explode and cause serious injury. Also, wait to refill the stove until after it has cooled. Never use indoors and never overfill.
No mention is made on the fuel capacity of the stove.
Website Impressions: The Vargo website was often offline while I was completing my initial report. However, once I was able to access it, I was able to easily find the stove section and find the page listing the stove. The website does not offer any more information on the stove that isn’t already on the package. In fact, the website has less information than what is on the package (as of 01 March 2008).
I have used other alcohol stoves before and I was pleased to handle the Vargo when it arrived. It feels very solid and is visibly well constructed. I noticed the stability plate was slightly bent on arrival, but I was able to easily straighten it so it would lay flat. The stove is very light and lives up to the 1.2 oz (34 g) weight claim.
For me, there are three main limitations of an alcohol stove: durability, burn time, and simmering. The stove already feels very strong, and I feel confident this stove will hold up to any rough treatment I may inflict in the field.
My initial testing has also shown me this stove has a very long burn time, although I wasn’t able to duplicate the “one to two [minute]” priming time under normal operating conditions, indoors or out. On one indoor test, however, I accidentally spilled fuel around the outside of the stove. This proved fortuitous (though clearly outside the stated instructions) and shortened the priming time to under 30 seconds! I was able to duplicate this result under very favorable conditions (indoors), but because there is no real priming ring on the stability plate, I worry about duplicating this quick priming method out in the field.
As for simmering, the Vargo seems to do pretty well. Other alcohol stoves I’ve used require a “simmering ring” or some kind of cap to cover some of the jet holes to lower the heat output. My theory on why the Vargo stove burns so long with only 1 oz (30 ml) of fuel is because the flames burn very low. After the stove primes, the jets jump out and are very large intially. But after a minute or two, the jets lower down—looking almost oxygen starved—and remain that way for the rest of the burn time until they eventually putter and die altogether.
So far, I am impressed with how long the stove burns. However, I’ve noticed that the stove cannot completely burn all the fuel. Even at low levels (0.5 oz, 15 ml), there is about 0.08 oz (2.5 ml) of fuel remaining inside the stove. There was no way I could find to get the stove to completely “burn out,” so I attempted to reclaim the fuel and drain it out of the stove as directed in the instructions.
My first attempts to get the fuel out of the stove were messy. With a little practice, I was able to get a few drops into a wide-mouth measuring cup, but the alcohol drizzles all over the stove and onto the ground and pours out of multiple flame jet holes. I wasn’t able to successfully pour the remaining fuel directly into my fuel bottle (an 8 oz, 237 ml recycled water bottle). Doing this will take some practice to reclaim fuel in the field, or I may just drain the fuel into the ground.
In my initial tests, it was difficult to fill up the stove with fuel. While there is a large opening on the top of the stove, the concave fuel “cup” has a very small hole where the fuel enters the main cavity of the stove. I could only pour a little bit of fuel at a time and had to wait for the fuel to “drain” in through the porthole before I could completely get 1 oz (30 ml) of fuel into the stove. It will take some time to get used to this, or I may need to use an eye-dropper instead of a cup for fuel pouring.
I also noticed that this stove produced fuel condensation on the bottom of my pot while cooking. When I lifted the pot off the stove, the fuel on the pot ignited in a flash and burned off completely. This startled me! If I do want to extinguish the stove before the fuel is completely gone, I will need to remember to check the bottom of the pot too.
The last thing I observed in my pre-testing was that I could not get the stove to bring water to a real boil. At about three minutes I noticed small bubbles forming. At five minutes I observed steam, but even after 20 minutes, the temperature only reached a high of about 203 F (95 C). This is hot enough for many kinds of “backpacking” recipes, but I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t get a rolling boil, even with less water.
I am expecting testing conditions to be more difficult on a hike, so I will plan my meal preparations accordingly. However, with such long, low-heat cooking times, there are still plenty of meal options, especially frying pan foods!
All testing will be conducted in Northern Virginia, with elevations between sea level and about 2,000 ft (610 m). I have a busy schedule planned with the Boy Scouts over the next few months where I will be able to test the stove in a range of conditions leading up to Spring and beyond. I will also add intermittent activities where I can actually get some rest from the Scouts and enjoy backpacking alone, and with friends.
I expect temperatures between 20 F (-7 C) and 80 F (27 C) during this time period, global warming permitting.
I intend to evaluate the product on the following:
This concludes my Initial Report. The Field Report will be amended to this report in approximately two months from the date of this report. Please check back then for further information.
06 May 2008
Testing Locations and Conditions
Most of my backpacking, hiking, and outdoor adventures have been with the Boy Scouts during our regular monthly adventures. These activities have been in and around the Northern Virginia region, including the George Washington National Forest and Shenandoah Valley. Elevations have been from sea level and about 100 ft (30 m) to about 1000 ft (305 m). I have experienced nightime temperatures from around 15 F (-9 C) to daytime temperatures just over 80 F (27 C). Unfortunately, it has not snowed very much this year in Northern Virginia and it has seemed unseasonably warm at times.
I have taken the Vargo stove on all my backpacking adventures over the past few months, including spontaneous “I think I’ll just cook outside” moments at home. Every once-in-a-while my son says, “Dad, I want to cook on the stove,” so I pull the Vargo out of my kit and we walk out to the porch and cook up a fun breakfast, lunch, or dinner. It’s been fun!
Amount and Type of Use
Over the past couple of months, I’ve used the Vargo 10 days on backpacking and camping treks in addition to several spontaneous “front porch” cooking opportunities. As described later, I have used the stove with a small 3 cup (0.7 L) Open Country non-stick pot and an MSR Blacklite non-stick fry pan to cook a small range of meals from boil-in-a-bag to frying pan french fries. I tried to use the stove at least two or three times each day–a little overkill in some circumstances, but this is a test after all.
The following table gives an overview of how the stove was used. The “Weather” column is an average overview of the trek. The “Food” column just shows what types of meals I used with the stove, not my weekend menu. “Next Time” are tips for my next trek.
Durability & Storage: The Vargo stove is very durable. On my first few outings, I just threw the stove into my bear bag inside my backpack. It doesn’t bend easily and is very tough, upholding the titanium view. I now put the stove inside my pot because I like to keep everything well packed. The stove fits perfectly inside my 3-cup (0.7 L) Open Country pot and I usually wrap it in a small pack towel to reduce the possibility of scratching.
Performance & Cooking: In my initial review, I didn’t think I would get a rolling boil. Near the end of my field testing, I was actually getting a rolling boil regularly with 1 oz (30 ml) of fuel and 2 cups (237 ml) of water in my 3 cup (0.7 L) pot. The quickest rolling boil I’ve seen so far was 6 minutes 30 seconds with these same constraints of fuel and water. I am planning to revisit my “controlled” testing and see what is making the difference in heat transfer. With the rolling boil out of the way, I have been very pleased with the performance of the stove. I have been able to cook a range of foods outside the typical boil-in-a-bag method.
Getting fuel into the stove is tricky with my trusty measuring cup, as the stove has a tendency to overfill the entry hole and spill on the outside of the stove. This, however, was fortuitous, because it led me to the “fast start” method of priming the stove in about 20 seconds. Sometimes mistakes pay off. I’ve tried squirting fuel directly into the stove which works great with no spilling, but it is hard to tell how much fuel I’m using. With practice, I hope I can eyeball how much fuel I am using.
The stove stays warm for a minute or two after I’m done cooking and I usually wait about a minute before I pour the remaining fuel back into my fuel bottle.
I feel pretty comfortable now with how the stove works, but I still want to find out what I missed in getting a rolling boil. Is it just the outside temperature? Then what went wrong in my indoor tests? I never used a windscreen indoors, was that the missing component? I hope to find out.
I’m ready to move on to some other “fun” foods like french toast or foods with raw ingredients (fruits and vegetables). I want to try making french fries again too. Yum! I’m not sure if I can get away with a baked item (muffin or cake)–it may require a refill, we’ll see.
This concludes my Field Report; please check back in about two months (early July) for my Long-Term Report.
Long Term Report
26 June 2008
Okay, so a resolution to my rolling boil question. One thing that should be obvious to me (but wasn’t) was my “scientific” methodology in my initial reporting. In order to measure the temperature of the water, I couldn’t achieve a close seal on my pot lid for my 3 cup (0.7 L) pot. More heat than I realized was escaping out the top. I did a few quick indoor tests with a tight lid, windscreen, 1 oz (30 ml) of fuel and achieved a rolling boil at 12 minutes 30 seconds, on average. I think I did the best I could, under the circumstances.
What can I say more? I am really impressed with this little stove. I’ve taken this stove on a few more campouts, including a very wet overnight Father and Sons camp (with a five-mile day hike), a four-day family adventure along Assateague National Seashore, and a “Daddy/Daughter” overnighter (fathers must be fair). My sons absolutely love “cooking on the stove” with daddy. Awesome!
With my sons, we picked up some Lipton-style rice and noodle bags to cook for dinner. We tried to follow the instructions by “browning” the rice in some butter and then re-hydrating everything together. Well, the stove was too hot and we (my oldest insisted on doing the cooking) burned a lot of the rice and noodles, but we ate heartily. Thankfully (for all of us) we packed some no-cook dessert.
I think one of my greatest successes with this stove (aside from getting a true boil) was steam baking. For those who haven’t tried it, or haven’t heard of it, steam baking is simply baking inside your regular pot using a little water at the bottom to produce steam. The baked items won’t brown or crisp, but are deliciously moist.
I picked up some tart tins from the store and tried different mixes: corn bread, Bisquick baking mix, chocolate cake, and muffins. I put a small amount of water at the bottom of my pot, placed a few small stones on the bottom (the stones were large enough to crest above the water), and placed a small piece of screen on the rocks. The tins sat on top of the screen. Cooking in the small tins took only 6 to 8 minutes.
On our family camp at Assateague, we cooked up some chocolate cake on the tins (the kids seemed to like the chocolate best). With just over an ounce of fuel (30 ml), I was able to run through a few rounds of baking, by swapping tins in-and-out as they cooked.
As a side-note, do not overfill the tins with batter as they will overflow; just under the rim is adequate.
I’ve taken the stove on over 15 days and nights of camping and backpacking over the testing period, including many backyard tests.
The Vargo stove has really won me over as a very durable, long-cooking alternative to my other home-made alcohol stoves. I am very impressed with how long the stove cooks, which has made it possible to cook recipes beyond your typical boil-in-a-bag menu.
I have had no worries about the stove breaking or being crushed in my bag, although I do put the stove inside my pot for organization purposes now. I’ve noticed slight discoloration around the jet holes, but otherwise the stove has maintained its appearance.
The most difficult aspect of the stove is filling it up with fuel. Using my typical method with a small measuring cup, I had to be very careful and slowly pour the fuel and wait for it to drain inside. Using a squirt-style fuel bottle makes filling easier, but it is very hard to tell how much fuel you’ve added. Since I am used to budgeting my fuel, this was a challenge. However, I found that I could be careless in adding fuel since I almost always extinguished the flames once my food was cooked, and reclaimed the unused fuel.
Reclaiming the fuel is probably the second most difficult aspect of this stove, although I was able to get much more adept with practice. I hated wasting fuel, but that is inevitable to some degree. I found that many hot-water-only meals required only about 0.5 oz (15 ml) of fuel, but the stove wasn’t as efficient with that little fuel. Instead, I would always add about 1 oz (30 ml) of fuel and then reclaim about 0.5 (15 ml) of unused fuel after cooking was complete.
The real trick in using this stove is priming it externally. I used a home-made aluminum base plate under the stove and then would purposely spill fuel on and around the stove as I would fill it with fuel before cooking. Lighting this spilled fuel would prime the stove in under 30 seconds making the stove more efficient in the long run. I suppose the stove could be re-tooled to eliminate some of the base plate holes and use them as a priming ring of some sort. I think the weight penalty would be minor in comparison to the superior priming time.
But, even if Vargo keeps the design as-is, the Decagon is a great addition to my backpacking gear.
Thank you to Vargo and BackpackGearTest.org for providing me with the opportunity to test this gear.Updated: Thursday, June 26, 2008 9:27:14 PM
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